Articles in Category: Ferrous Metals

Since the beginning of March, steel prices in China have fallen sharply while prices in the U.S. have risen. That is simply not sustainable.

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These price divergences happen once in a while but they don’t last long. Over the next few weeks we’ll either see a rebound in Chinese prices or weakness in US steel prices.

US HRC (in blue) vs. Chinese HRC (in purple). Source: MetalMiner IndX.

Why do we say this? Well, China’s output accounts for more than 50% of world steel production. Currently, China isn’t a major exporter to the U.S., but it is the biggest exporter to the rest of the world. Therefore, Chinese prices put a floor under international steel prices.

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Since prices peaked in February, China’s hot-rolled coil prices have fallen nearly 15%. During the same period, U.S. HRC prices have risen nearly 8%. Interestingly, we saw a similar divergence last summer, when the U.S. imposed strong anti-dumping measures against imports. Such a wide international price arbitrage didn’t last long, as we predicted last year, this price arbitrage narrowed after that summer.

CRC price arbitrage US-China. Source:MetalMiner IndX.

U.S. steel prices are now expensive again relative to Chinese prices. In the case of cold-rolled coil, the price spread stands now at $344 per metric ton, quite high compared to historical levels and not far from last summer’s peak of $420 per mt. A level that has proven unsustainable before.

What This Means For Metal Buyers

We continue to be long-term bullish on steel markets. However, buyers should closely monitor the recent divergence between Chinese and US prices. We should see a recovery in Chinese steel prices soon, otherwise US steel mills will have a hard time justifying further price hikes. Remember that we are in a global world and although US steel prices can temporarily move apart from Chinese prices, they will eventually move in tandem because otherwise, buyers will start looking to buy steel overseas.

This month, some of our metals reached new heights while others saw their rallies noticeably falter.

Aluminum and Raw Steels are still riding high, while complicated supply stories saw stainless and copper fall. Demand from manufacturers for almost all of the metals we track remains strong.

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17 Of the 18 manufacturing industries tracked by the Institute for Supply Management’s index of national factory activity reported growth and no industry reported a contraction last month. Buyers still might want to beware as metal markets are showing more pull-backs than we witnessed in March, despite the overall bullish behavior across the entire industrial metals complex.

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross recently announced the final results of an annual administrative review of the anti-dumping duty order on imports of oil country tubular goods (OCTG) from the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Commerce found that Korean steel producers have been unfairly dumping OCTG in the U.S. market, hurting American workers and businesses.

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Commerce announced, in a press release, that it is exercising its authority under Congress for the first time to address market distortions in the production of foreign merchandise, and to calculate dumping margins that “more accurately account for the unfair pricing practices of foreign exporters. Section 504 of the Trade Preferences Extension of 2015 is a vital instrument in helping to identify distortions in the market that can enable and facilitate dumping practices.”

During the period covered by the administrative review (July 2014 to August 2015), OCTG imports from South Korea were valued at an estimated $1.1 billion, accounting for nearly 25% of all U.S. imports of OCTG. The dumping margins, or the rate at which the imported materials were under sold below fair value in the U.S., were found to range from 2.76% to 24.9%.

A 24.92%t tariff rate was imposed on OCTG from Nexteel, 2.76% on SeAh Steel and 13.84% on Hyundai Steel and other South Korean steelmakers.

The review also concluded that prices of the hot-rolled coil used to produce OCTG, as well as Korean electricity prices, were distorted. Anti-dumping tariffs on Nexteel and Hyundai each increased 16.88% and 7.92%, respectively, during this review. The initial preliminary rulings and the lower percentages were announced last October.

Seah Steel, however, saw a 1.04% reduction, making it the only South Korean steelmaker that was levied a lower tariff rate.

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“There is fair and unfair trade, and the distinction is not very hard to make,” Secretary Ross said in the release. “We will not stand for the distortions in foreign markets being used against U.S. businesses. The Trump Administration will continue to employ all of the tools provided under the law to take swift action against harmful trade practices from foreign nations attempting to take advantage of our markets, workers, and businesses.”

Global steel prices tend to find a floor based on the price of Chinese steel. If Chinese prices fall, domestic U.S. prices also tend to fall. However, grain-oriented electrical steel continues to beat to its own drum, often not aligned with underlying steel prices.

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March is no exception.

Although U.S. domestic steel prices continued to rise in March, the GOES M3 price fell and fell rather significantly dropping by nearly 7%.

GOES MMI

Meanwhile, according to a couple of recent TEX Reports, GOES prices from Baosteel increased by $38/metric ton in April after increases of $168/mt from January through March. Baosteel acts as the price leader and according to a recent report, and will likely stand pat until or unless others also increase their prices. Those “others” may have a near-term opportunity to do so as a large tender from Bharat Heavy Electricals for 20,000 mt will bring in the global GOES producer community. As China tends to set the “market floor” for global steel prices, the TEX Report suggests that this tender will serve as the global price floor for GOES for the balance of 2017.

Supporting the rising price theory, TEX Report also suggests that prices have risen by $200-300 per mt in the Middle East and India.

Ironically, prices for steel rebar on the Shanghai Futures Exchange have declined by 5% according to a recent MetalMiner story on the back of declining coking coal (4%) and declining coke prices (5%), as well as falling iron ore futures. Some, including MetalMiner, believe the price declines are due to speculators unwinding bullish bets.

Chinese HRC

Source: MetalMiner Forecasting

Regardless, Chinese prices for hot-rolled coil are falling and though GOES prices often diverge from underlying steel market trends, upward price movements may be elusive.

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The signals the U.S. is sending in the steel sector really worry Germany, so said Brigitte Zypries, German Economy Minister, according to Reuters in a recent article.

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This isn’t the first time the European Union has had a trade spat with the U.S. over steel but it is unusual for one party or the other to take the case to the World Trade Organization, claiming “accounting tricks” and “protectionism” designed to give domestic producers an “unfair competitive advantage.”

The E.U.’s position is this issue should have been addressed through bilateral negotiations giving them the opportunity to show Germany, French and Austrian steel producers are not dumping steel and are not being subsidized, but President Trump signed executive orders last Friday aimed at identifying abuses causing the huge U.S. trade deficit, and Germany is deemed one of the worst culprits.

Port Talbot steel plant

British Steel and its Port Talbot plant could be the next company in line for carbon and alloy steel plate tariffs from the U.S. Source: Adobe Stock/Petert2

However, by issuing a final finding that European and Asian producers dumped certain carbon and alloy steel cut-to-length plate in the U.S. market, the Department of Commerce says it is allowed to impose duties ranging from 3.62 to 148%, but the E.U. claims the decision has been determined on the basis of dodgy accounting estimates and the correct place to discuss them is at the negotiating table or via the WTO, not by applying duties which will then take months to address and impact trade for a year or more, essentially shutting European mills out of the U.S. market. Read more

A recent Financial Times article lays the blame for falling iron ore prices in China firmly at the door of Australia’s Department of Industry Innovation and Science, whose latest quarterly report predicted average prices in China would fall to $65 per metric ton this year before ultimately declining further to $51 per mt.

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The FT quoted the department’s report saying prices would be weighed down by the combined impact of ongoing growth in low-cost supply and soft demand.

Source: Financial Times

While we don’t doubt that investors will have taken notice of the department’s report, the fact is analysts have been calling for a fall in the iron ore price for months now. Indeed, the rising tide of supply has been expected to weigh on prices for much of the last six months, such that continued price resilience and robust demand have caught some by surprise. Read more

Our Stainless MMI lost 3 points in March, essentially losing what it gained in February.

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Industrial metals continued their rally during the first quarter but nickel didn’t fare as well. Prices are still significantly higher than they were one year ago, but investors are now finding little reason to be any more bullish than bearish due to a complex supply narrative.

The Philippines

On March 13, The Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte, threatened to stop all mining in the country. Despite the potential for more closures, investors doubted that Duterte would enforce such strict regulations. Duterte still supports Department of the Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez. The Philippines’ mining industry hoped for the Commission on Appointments (CA) to reject Lopez as the Environment secretary in March.

However, lawmakers opted to postpone a decision to confirm or reject Lopez as the head of that department. Further confirmation hearings are expected to take place in May.

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U.S. automakers’ sales figures for March came in below market expectations and gave early evidence that America’s long boom cycle for automotive sales may finally be losing steam. Automakers sold 1.56 million new cars and trucks in March, a 1.6% decline compared with the same month a year ago.

Ford Motor Company took the biggest hit among sales drops, seeing its March numbers fall more than 7% from February’s.

Industry consultant Autodata put industry Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate at 16.62 million cars, trucks and SUVs for March.

That was below the 17.3 million analysts polled by Reuters had expected, and the first time since August that the SAAR – a crucial industry metric – had fallen below 17 million.

General Motors had the best month, reporting a 2% increase in sales to just over 256,000 vehicles, with sales of its Tahoe and Suburban SUV models seeing their best sales month since 2008.

Sales at Ford Motor Co. fell the aforementioned 7+% to 236,000 vehicles, with fleet sales to rental agencies, businesses and government entities down nearly 17% on the year. Sales of Ford’s F-Series pickup trucks rose 10% but that simply could not offset the losses elsewhere. Sales at Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles fell 5% in March. Automotive sales in the U.S. risen since end of the 2008 recession and hit a record last year of 17.55 million last year. Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. reported smaller losses.

The fall in new car sales is even more curious considering that consumer confidence is at its highest level since 2000. Could the level of vehicle replacement that had driven sales since 2008 finally be falling? Vehicle inventories at dealerships have risen to the highest point since 2004, according to Edmunds.com.

If auto sales have, indeed, plateaued, then prices for automotive steel and aluminum could as well, at least in the expansive U.S. market. Our Automotive MMI remained flat this month at 88.

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Editor’s note: We have restated the March Construction MMI to 80. An error in tabulation last month caused us to under-report it at 77. MetalMiner regrets the error.

U.S. developers opened up their wallets in February and construction spending increased to the highest level of spend in nearly 11 years, led by more building of homes, highways and schools.

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Our Construction MMI remained at its corrected score of 80 this month.

Construction MMI

Construction spending rose 0.8% to $1.19 trillion in February to the highest level since April 2006, after two months of declines, the Commerce Department said. New home sales remained strong despite a rather steady supply of newly constructed houses, apartments and condominiums coming onto the market.

Spending on new home building, as well as renovations, rose nearly 10% in the final three months of 2016, the most in a year.

The biggest move, though, came from government construction projects. State and local governments spent 0.9% more on construction, driven by roads, schools and recreational buildings.

The federal government actually cut construction spending for the second straight month and has cut back 9% from a year ago but that could soon change if an infrastructure plan emerges this year in Washington, D.C. President Donald Trump has pledged to boost infrastructure spending by $1 trillion over the next decade. Trump has focused on healthcare and now, apparently, tax reform.

Meanwhile, the Institute for Supply Management said its index of national factory activity fell to a reading of 57.2 last month from 57.7 in February, which was the highest since August 2014.

Any reading above 50 still indicates an expansion in manufacturing, which accounts for about 12% of the U.S. economy and construction materials such as steel framing and rebar are counted in ISM’s factory output numbers.

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17 Of the 18 manufacturing industries reported growth and no industry reported a contraction. Comments from factories were mostly upbeat, with machinery manufacturers saying that business was up 10 to 15%.

Optimism about relaxed regulation and the generally pro-business approach of the Trump administration still seems to be buoying both construction and consumer spending but if Trump cannot implement his agenda this optimism could quickly wane. An infrastructure plan that can make it through the Congress continues to be a necessary priority for metals manufacturers and the economy at large.

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Last week, the Trump trade agenda finally took off as the Commerce Department, now officially led by billionaire Wilbur Ross, finalized new carbon and alloy steel plate anti-dumping duties and President Donald Trump had some choice words as he signed two new executive orders he says will level the international trade playing field for U.S. manufacturers.

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“There’s never been a systematic examination, country by country and major product by major product, of why do we have the deficit,” Ross said during an interview on “Sunday Morning Futures” on Fox News with Sandra Smith, who was sitting in for host Maria Bartiromo.

“There’s a lot that’s due to cheating, there’s a lot due to dumping, there’s a lot that’s due to subsidies that are illegal, lot to do with a lot of things that are not inherent in free trade,” he continued.

Ross cited entities, many of which were created purely to facilitate exports, that go out of business before duties are collected as one situation that leads to lax enforcement of existing anti-dumping and countervailing duties orders, what the other executive order instructed commerce to accomplish.

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The new executive orders come just as President Trump will meet this week with Chinese President Xi Jinging at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. It’ll be Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with Xi, after a campaign that was highly critical of U.S. trade with China.

Carbon and Alloy Steel Plate Duties

Commerce had a busy week, announcing affirmative final determinations that steel producers in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), and Taiwan are dumping imports of carbon and alloy steel plate in the U.S.